Trees pose particular safety risks to the public

Trees provide a beautiful natural backdrop to many popular attractions visited by the public and none more so than within the picturesque landscapes home to historic estates throughout the UK.

As the seasons change, so to does the colour palette of these trees creating an amazing affect on the character and beauty of a location. The different appearances can provide all the incentive the general public needs to return to the same spots for visits all year round.

Maintaining these trees is necessary, not only to preserve their health and that of the wider ecosystem, but for landowners of estates which welcome visitors there are some important safety responsibilities which must be acted upon.

What are the risks?

There can be a temptation to think of large, mature trees as being solid and stable – after all, they may have been growing there for decades if not hundreds of years and will, depending on their species, quite possibly be around for a few hundred more.

The likelihood of someone being killed by a tree is relatively small. Each year between five and six people in the UK are killed when trees or branches fall on them. The number of non-fatal accident and emergency cases attributable to being struck by trees is about 55 a year.

However, fatal accidents or incidents where serious injury or damage to property is caused can happen. And should a significant incident occur on an estate which relies on visitors, the negative publicity might have a reputational impact for years. Headline-grabbing reports of accidents can appear in online search results long after the event.

Large trees pose an ever-present risk to people as they, or their branches, can fall as a result of damage from a storm, disease, subsidence or simply through an inherent weakness which fails at the wrong moment.

There are also obvious risks posed when trees are climbed upon, when the branches overhang roads or footpaths, when their roots grow above ground, or when their presence obscures motorists’ vision of a highway.

What are landowners’ responsibilities?

It might be natural to worry over the potential costs of keeping a large number of trees safe or of the risk of litigation. However, to keep things in perspective, the National Tree Safety Group (NTSG) said in its 2011 report: “Court judgments and the Health and Safety Executive have recently shown regard for the landowner taking reasonable and proportionate tree assessment and management without the implied need for burdensome record keeping or costly professional surveying.”

The organisation also warns that a situation has arisen where those responsible for trees are ‘managing them defensively, through fear of litigation’ – in other words some landowners are choosing to chop trees down in a pre-emptive strike.

Although the NTSG says it is not yet possible to ‘articulate a fully developed method for risk benefit analysis for tree risk management’ precedents highlight that organisations with a published tree management plan are much better placed to demonstrate they have fulfilled their duty of care.

In Bowen & Others v The National Trust, a case heard in the High Court, it was described how a large branch from a mature beech tree fell, during windy weather, onto a party of children.  One child died and three others suffered fractures and serious injuries during the incident at a Suffolk estate.

In his judgement, Mr Justice MacKay outlined that there had been a demonstrable risk management process in place which had been carried out by a competent person. As a result he concluded: “I cannot find that the defendant was negligent or in breach of its duty in respect of this tragedy.”

While accidents involving trees are extremely rare, clearly it is far better to ensure you have the right risk management in place so your insurers can defend you should the worst happen. For those without adequate plans there is the risk of significant reputational damage as well as the threat of fines if it is deemed that those responsible were negligent.

Given that public liability claims in recent years have seen limits of £10 million breached, it should also be a priority to discuss with your insurer if your limit is set high enough.